I’ve been forbidden from describing the “Peculier Old 200” as a flat ride, but it is safe to say that even though this scenic calendar event takes place amid the hills and dales of Northern England it isn’t characterized by climbing and it doesn’t even qualify for an Audax Altitude Award. The ride organiser’s encyclopedic knowledge of County Durham and North Yorkshire cycling has been put to good use in designing a beautiful route which gets to the heart of the county without killing anyone. To those in the know, the named climbs loom around you, beckoning you to come and visit. Bollihope is such a playful name but is a killer Mountain Time Trial route. There is ‘hope’ everywhere: while Harthope sounds encouraging, Killhope sounds threatening. The “Peculier Old 200” invites cyclists into this land of hope and no-hope and nurtures them through to the other side, with nothing more than stunning scenery to remember it by. No hills.
There is history to this route too, with the suggestion that European riders would come for an end-of-season bash during the 50s and 60s: a knockabout ride with local clubs getting around the old 150-mile route in daylight while enjoying some of the local ale too! While the details are now only rumour, Dean has pieced together a safer event keeping to the quieter roads.
I’d been fortunate enough to be involved in the initial route checking in May 2016. Back then, as we sat at the bar of the White Bear in Masham*, I realized that I wanted to be a volunteer on the day: specifically, the volunteer who gets to sit in the White Bear in Masham, stamping Brevet Cards as riders pass through. The name of the event was almost defining itself – how could a ride that passes through Masham not stop at the Black Sheep or Theakston’s Brewery? Theakston’s in Masham is to real ale what Guinness is to stout in Dublin: one of those iconic ‘bucket list’ places. It seemed obvious that the mark of the Old Peculier would make a great choice for the Brevet Card stamp.
Volunteers do get the best of both worlds on an event, being able to both ride the route anytime up to a week before or after, but also by being immersed in the camaraderie; assisting every single rider. I met up with Dean in Darleaux** railway station at about 8am on a grey Monday morning. He gave me my own Brevet Card, plus the special ‘Old Peculier’ stamp to use the following week. After leading me out of the rush hour traffic, I took to the route north through Sedgefield to Fishburn. Sedgefield might be famous for Tony Blair, but more importantly it is famous for Number Four Teashop. Locals still remember British and American Secret Service Agents picking up selections of cream cakes when President Bush came to visit. We’re just north of the River Tees in coal mining countryside, and when we turn west from Fishburn we’re following a coal seam. The lack of hills gets going in Ferryhill with the ascent of Station Road and Broom Road to get to the top of Dean Bank. After crossing the River Wear in Bish Vegas*** the road climbs gently along a deserted B-road, just south of David Bellamy’s erstwhile haunt of Hamsterley Forest with its stupendous mountain biking trails.
Folly Top is the point where the route leaves the bleak moorland of Langleydale and we freefall into Teesdale down a safely fast 10% descent. However, just as you are settling into the acceleration, the views open out dramatically and you can see lush green fields on the slopes surrounding the River Tees. This is the point where you wish you had your camera, but before you remember it is too late and the ride hurtles into Middleton-in-Teesdale and the superb selection of tearooms. For riders of the event I would recommend getting a bit of refueling here and then trying to make Masham in one go. On my helper-ride I’d stopped at my parent’s home in Bish Vegas for a bacon sandwich, so there was no need for me to pause for longer than a coffee in Middleton-in-Teesdale, which suggested I was going to struggle to reach Masham without another stop.
Rouleurs will have enjoyed the roads so far, and ought to continue to do so for the next 30km as the ride takes us back down Teesdale. This is the historical ‘Land of the Pennine Way’ and long tough climbs loom over us. In the safety of Dean’s route-sheet and gpx files, we are directed on a crisscrossing of the River Tees and under the castle walls of Barney****. Whorlton Bridge must be world famous now, after featuring on London Edinburgh London – but this doesn’t stop me enjoying the musical experience of rolling across to the clicky-clacky noise on the slatted road surface.
My ride was in warm late October sunshine, with no breeze. The leaves were beginning to turn and I expected that by the following weekend this would have become even more intense for those who I hoped would be enjoying this too.
Although we’re skirting the tough climbs, the next section isn’t easy; we leave Teesdale and head into Swaledale – it is a shame this climb lacks an iconic name like “The ‘Stang”, but the Low Scales climb comes 110km into this ride and marks the beginning of a hard section through Richmond and Catterick Garrison. In Richmond I needed to refuel, and fell into the abyss that is “The Station”. I strongly encourage riders to avoid this lazy-tourist trap as the service is dreadfully slow and exceptionally expensive… no, if you must stop, please try to make it over the next climb. You’ll be rewarded with an Audaxer’s delight: the inexpensive horror of fast-food and multiple-supermarkets. Horrible but cheap and quick… press on though and build up that time buffer because Masham is just ahead at 137km. Masham – oh Masham – how I long to be wrapped up in front of your log fires, with a pint of Old Peculier in my hand and plate loaded high with steak pie and chips in thick gravy.
Shift perspective forward one week and that is me: club jersey to mark me as a cyclist and ‘Audax UK Control’ sign beside me. If the ride earlier in the week had been lonely – the five hours of manning a mid-way control off-set this by being the most enthusiastically convivial time I’ve enjoyed in a long while. Bob Johnson (VeloClub 167) was the first rider through with an average pace of 27kph, shortly followed by Greg Melia (Clifton CC). They’d banked sufficient time to have a proper sit down meal in the restaurant, but isn’t that an advantage of riding fast? The staff at the White Bear were fabulous: they were delighted to have so many cyclists around giving a real buzz of joy to the atmosphere, and they opened an outside kitchen for riders who wanted to just fill their bottles and get cards stamped. Riders bouncing the control didn’t bother them at all, but to be fair I noticed that most riders stopped at this ‘Last Homely House’, imbibing at least a half of Old Peculier as a toast to the event.
There was a diversity to the rider list: a solid representation of men and women, experienced and first-timers, and some had travelled a long distance to take part from as far as London or Edinburgh. The youngest rider on the event was Kieron; only 12 years old and making fantastic progress.
Riders were coming into the control right to the wire: Joe Applegarth (Houghton CC) and Marcus Coupe (Yet Another Cycling Forum) were my last two customers but they were on the road again before the Control closed, with plenty of time to make the end. I was sad to miss the last rider through: Sean O’Shah. Although he was out of time at Masham, (I heard this was because he’d experienced a stream of mechanical issues) he heroically stuck at it until he’d caught up with Marcus and Joe, then completed in time – Chapeau! I was saddened to learn that Peter Bond’s brother Trevor had an accident and the pair of them couldn’t continue. We’re all wishing Trevor a speedy recovery and hope to see him out on a ride again soon.
On my helper-ride I had left Masham at 4pm, so night fell well before I reached the Tees Valley and I was finishing the ride along dark country lanes. However, I found was that I was cycling along little lanes I’d not discovered before. It is a testament to a well-designed route that it not only goes the right way, but that it surprises even local riders with new roads. There were only two landmarks left to pass: Cheesecake Hill and the Low Dinsdale Bridge. In the pitch-black I swiftly rode over them both and barely noticed… I wonder if this ride would benefit from being run with longer hours of light as these final Tees Valley lanes are very nice to experience. The approach to Low Dinsdale bridge is a tree-lined avenue worth riding out to see for its own sake.
While on the day of the event I merely rode from Northallerton to Masham and back to catch my train, on the helper-ride I made my way back to Darleaux to complete the route – ending up at The Quakerhouse to meet Dean and share a post-ride pint or two. If this ride is run in 2017 I’ll hope to be at the White Bear yet again, stamping Brevet Cards.
May I heartily commend this event to the Audax UK massif; as the inaugural running of this modern version of a classic was a resounding success. Darleaux is on the East Coast mainline and there is a Travelodge (£34pn) adjacent to the start/finish line, making this an accessible event wherever you travel from. I don’t doubt that when word gets out about the scenery, the route, the hospitality of the Masham Control and the special feel of a well-attended event we’ll be seeing many more entrants. Special thanks to Dean Clementson (VeloClub 167) for all his effort in organising this experience, and to my fellow volunteers; Anita Clementson, Debbie Norcup and Andrew Wills.
* Masham pronunciation guide: “Mass-Um”.
** Darleaux / Darlo : A local term of endearment for the market town of Darlington.
*** Bish Vegas: A reference to the diverse and thrilling nightlife of Bishop Auckland.
**** Barney: Barnard Castle… in the pell-mell of North East living, who has time for syllables?
(This report was delayed in sending to my blog so that the original could appear in the Feb 2017 copy of Arrivée; the Audax UK Magazine.)
Photographs of riders courtesy of Dean Clementson: